Quakers, developer clash over meetinghouse project

Restoration, luxury-home proposals spark criticism

Ellicott City

April 01, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

More than two centuries ago, members of the Society of Friends gathered in a stone meetinghouse in Ellicott City that embodied their ideal of simplicity.

Quakers have not worshiped in the building, now a private home, for 150 years. But several oppose a developer's plan to restore it and build a luxury home nearby.

More than a dozen members of the Patapsco Friends Meeting, a local Quaker congregation numbering about 30, have signed a petition against plans that "give witness to the extravagant materialism, increasing inequality, and the self-centered individualism that are ever more prevalent in our society."

Kenneth C. Stockbridge, one of the founding members of the Patapsco Friends Meeting, had proposed purchasing the property himself so he could serve as its steward.

"We would really simply like whatever happens to this property to reflect the Quaker values that the authentic property itself expressed in its original characteristics," he said.

Stockbridge plans to testify tonight before Howard County's historic district commission, which will review the application to remove a garage and build two additions to the meetinghouse, and construct the new home.

Builder Lucas Browning, who has a contract to purchase the house and the 1.21-acre lot, said his intention is preservation.

"We're trying to keep it as close to the original condition as we can," Browning said. Removing the garage, for example, will match a 1931 photograph, which shows a circular driveway.

"We want to maintain the integrity of the site," he said.

The Quakers have had opportunities to make an offer on the property, Browning said, which had a list price of $750,000.

But Stockbridge said that the Friends could not make decisions within the time period available, given their inexperience in land development and the deliberate processes the Quakers use to make decisions.

Unity, or consensus, is required before the meeting can take any action. The members of the meeting have not reached consensus about whether they should own any property, he said, much less this one. Stockbridge also said the meeting has not considered a formal position on the changes to the building.

Some believe that spending that kind of cash can be antithetical to Quaker philosophy. "Even if we had a million dollars, is that the way we should be using it?" asked Susan Rose, 65, who is also a founding member.

"You're talking about a lot of bucks for a religious body that in general feels that our primary function in the world is to help the widows and the orphans and the poor and the downtrodden and the forgotten," she added.

Rose said she is still making up her mind and did not sign the petition. She described the key features of a meetinghouse, including separate doors for men and women and room dividers on pulleys so they could hold separate business meetings.

"I've always been saddened by the additions that were added," she said. "Converting it to a residence and putting a porch on it and changing the doors didn't seem right to me."

The meetinghouse's history dates to the founding of Ellicott City. The mill town's pioneers met in the building, set high on a hill overlooking Main Street, said local historian Joetta M. Cramm. Now many are buried in the Ellicott family cemetery, which can be seen from the house's front door.

Early residents of Ellicott's Mills, as it was known then, used to travel to worship at the Elk Ridge Preparatory Meeting. But the concentration of Quakers increased in what is now Ellicott City, so they decided to move it nearby just before the turn of the 19th century.

Meetings ceased, however, as the Quaker population gradually decreased in the mid-1800s. The building has served in different roles since then, such as a school and most recently a residence.

In 1978, owners Eugene and Janet Albrecht placed their property under a 30-year federal easement administered by the Maryland Historical Trust, said program coordinator Elizabeth Tune. It expires in 2008. The trust must review and approve any changes to the exterior of the structure and the property on which it sits, she said.

On Tuesday, Browning met with the trust's review committee, Tune said. The group makes a recommendation to the trust's director, who typically issues a decision within two weeks, she added.

If dissatisfied, the applicant can appeal the decision, but members of the public cannot. These easements are a contract between the owner and the trust. "The public is not a party to that agreement," Tune said. "Their avenue for input and comment would be the historic district commission."

Staff from the county Department of Planning and Zoning have recommended the commission approve the project. Browning said that the additions are necessary - one provides better access to the furnace.

Stockbridge said he would like to see the Patapsco Meeting move to the historic site from its rented space at Mount Hebron House in Ellicott City. He acknowledges, however, the site would need more parking and room for a Sunday school.

"It would be a major undertaking," Stockbridge said. "It would take a lot of money to change the property to suit our use."

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